By Victoria Prieskop, Courthouse News Service
September 1, 2016
CARRIZOZO, N.M. (CN) — The New Mexico Livestock Board classified wild horses as stray livestock and is rounding them up and selling them, and horse-lovers have gone to court to try to stop it.
The Wild Horse Observation Association sued the Livestock Board on Monday, to stop it from labeling horses born to the wild herd in the Lincoln County area as "estray livestock" and selling them.
Lincoln County, in south central New Mexico, is best known as the seat of the 1878 Lincoln County War, which made a hero of Billy the Kid.
The New Mexico Livestock Board is an administrative state agency dominated by "board members who raise and own cattle." It governs the livestock industry in the state, according to the complaint in Lincoln County Court.
On Aug. 26, the Livestock Board took possession of 19 horses, 7 mares and 5 foals from the mustang herd that moves through Lincoln County, and declared that if ownership of the unbranded horses could not be established in five days, they would be sold at auction.
The state Land Board appears to be planning to return the horses to their range rather than selling them.
The core of the controversy is the definition of "livestock." The New Medico Livestock code defines it as "all domestic or domesticated animals that are used or raised on a farm or ranch," including horses, according to the complaint.
But the Livestock Code defines a wild horse as "an unclaimed horse on public land that is not an estray."
Estray means any livestock running at large on public or private land with an unknown owner and no clear branding or ownership mark.
New Mexico has specific procedures for handling wild horses, including testing DNA to determine whether it is a Spanish colonial horse, in which case it should be relocated to certain preserves dedicated to protecting the strain.
If a wild horse is found not to be of Spanish colonial stock, the horse "shall be returned to the public land, relocated to a public or private wild horse preserve or put up for adoption by the agency on whose land the wild horse was captured," the complaint states, citing state law.
The Wild Horse Observation Association (WHOA) claims the Livestock Board baited wild horses off public land onto private land so the horses could be rounded up and sold, and set up corrals with food and water on private land to impound them.
This is not a new fight in New Mexico.
In 1994, then Attorney General Tom Udall issued an opinion on a similar incident involving wild horses on the White Sands Missile Range.
Udall wrote: "Since the wild horses on White Sands Missile Range are not domestic or domesticated and have not been raised or used on a farm or ranch, they are not 'livestock' and are not 'estrays' under the Livestock Code, and the Livestock Board does not have jurisdiction to take possession of the horses and sell them as 'estrays' under [the Livestock Code]." (Quotation marks and brackets in complaint, which cites Attorney General Opinion 94-06 (1994).)
WHOA wants the Livestock Board enjoined from selling the horses impounded on Aug. 26, and from rounding up and impounding any more wild horses under "estray livestock" rules, and declaratory judgment that the Livestock Board has no jurisdiction to interfere with wild horses, which are not livestock. It also seeks costs of suit.
Neither party could be reached for comment after business hours Wednesday.